You used to hate him.

 

You couldn’t stand the way he tagged along all the time, and the way he refused to call you JC like all the other kids did.

 

“Josh?” he’d say, his voice sweet and young and disgustingly trusting.

 

“JC.” You’d snap, your voice sounding bitter after his.

 

“But Josh is your name, isn’t it?”  His eyes were always much too blue.

 

“Well, yeah, but-.”

 

“So anyway, can you drive Ryan and me to get burgers?  They made us meatloaf again.”

 

You’d always say yes, because if you didn’t the big-shots would lecture you about making the new kids feel welcome.  And eventually, you stopped hating him so much.  You even started to like the way he said your name.  Josh, like it was a secret or a song, in his honey-biscuit cherry-pie southern way of singing it.

 

He explained it once to you, when he was fourteen and drunk for the first time in his short life.  “It’s like this, Josh,” he’d said, over exaggerating his gestures and pausing periodically to sip his cheap beer.  “See, you’re JC, when you’re onstage, you know?  And sometimes you’re JC with other people, too.  But with me…” he took a long drink and you watched as a tiny drop of beer slid down his chin.  “With me, you’re Josh.”  And then he’d leaned forward and kissed you on the lips, with his mouth open, but no tongue, just lips - all warm and wet and foreign-tasting.  He’d pulled back afterward and shrugged.  “You think Chris would let me smoke pot, too?” he asked, and then slid off his stool in search of the eldest *NSYNC member.  You watched him walk away and thought maybe you’d like a joint right now, too.

 

He stopped calling you Josh a while ago, though.  You remember the first time he called you JC.  You were standing in an elevator after a long night of hard partying, with a blonde pressed up against your left side, her mouth over your ear.  Her hands were everywhere, so your eyes were only half open, but you could see seventeen-year-old Justin pressed against the far wall, looking like he wanted to shrink into it.  Trying to get as far away from you and the blonde as physically possible.  When the elevator got to his floor, he stepped off and looked back at you sleepily.  “Good night, JC.”

 

Fifteen minutes later, you were flat on your back while she did things to you that should have made you crazy but didn’t, because you were still concentrating on the way he said it, in that saxophone sad blues song voice.

 

Sometimes he still calls you Josh, but the occasions are few and far between.  Like sometimes he’ll come in your room when you’re on the phone with your mom, and he’ll sit and listen for a while, and after you hang up he’ll say, “Josh, you wanna rent a movie?”  and usually he’ll call you Josh for the whole night, and he’ll let you rest your head in his lap when you get to tired to hold up all the hair that’s been growing there lately.

 

And then in the morning, there will be an interview and a million girls screaming your name and two million screaming his, and he’ll call you JC again.  You know he doesn’t think about it.  It’s like an on and off switch – sometimes you’re Josh, the same Josh you’ve always had deep inside of you.  But usually, lately, you’re JC.  It started off as an image – a wholesome and innocent Disney-friendly cartoon version of an awkward teenager, who grew up into an egotistical rock star with an obsession with leather and highlighted hair and fur coats.  Over time, you buried Josh so deeply inside JC that you lost him.

 

Justin still gets the nightmares he used to get when he was a kid.  Actually, you wonder if he was ever a kid; or maybe he still is a kid and he’s too busy trying to be everything to everyone that he doesn’t have enough time to grow up on his own.  Whatever he is, he’s Justin, and he still gets those damn nightmares.  He won’t tell you what they’re about – you never asked, and he never offered the information.  All you know is that ever since he was fifteen and you were sharing a room in some cheap hotel in Florida while you auditioned for a million different label people, he’s had these night mares that make him wake up in the middle of the night sweaty and breathing hard and crying.

 

His mom hadn’t been able to make it down to Orlando that weekend; instead she’d entrusted Justin to the care of your mother and Diane.  So when Justin needed to be comforted, he’d crawled into your bed and gotten as close to you as he could get without physically touching you.  You’d pretended you were asleep and didn’t notice, but when his breathing became regular you’d shifted just an inch to the left so that your shoulder touched his before falling into a deep, deep sleep.

 

You know the dreams still come to him, because sometimes when you can’t sleep at night on the tour bus, you’ll hear him gasp as he jerks himself awake, and then the staccato of his sobs as he tries to regain his breath.  And you’ll hear him whimper, and you’ll wonder if twenty-year-old men should really be able to whimper.

 

And you’ll decide that you like that he still whimpers.

 

You’ll never say anything about it in the morning, though, when he wakes you up and he’s dressed in his tight jeans and expensive sneakers, with too much gel in his hair and too much cockiness in his step.  You’ll never mention the insecurities you know must still be there, somewhere under the glitter.

 

It’s been a long day.  You broke up with Bobbie for the second time this month and your mother called, again.  There’s a deadline for a new song, and you just can’t seem to get inspired at all, and Wade’s “new, fresh choreography ideas” are filled with too much jumping and grinding and twisting for your muscles to handle.

 

The last thing you need is Justin’s horrified gasp to wake you up tonight.  But it does, and you lie awake, clutching your pillow and waiting for the sobs to die down.  Tonight, though, instead of melting into whimpers and finally into silence, they keep coming – sobs from deep inside his chest that come out in gasps that, you’re sure, are sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

 

Quietly, you pull back the curtain of your bunk.  You hesitate before peering into Justin’s bed.  His back is to you and you watch it heave with sobs for a second before reaching out and pressing your palm against the expanse of bare skin.  You feel the muscles tense as your cool fingers hit his warm flesh.

 

“Relax,” you say.  “It’s just me.”

 

He relaxes, and you hear him take a shaky breath before sniffling.  “Josh?”

 

Josh.  JC.  Josh.  JC.  Josh.  Josh.  Josh.  “Yeah.”

 

Your hand slides up his back to lightly touch the clasp of the necklace he’s wearing, and he starts to cry again, harder this time.  “Could you just…” he gasps.  “Could you just leave me alone?”

 

You start to stand up, but then you realize you really don’t want to.  Really don’t want to.  So you tell him, “Don’t want to,” and you pull back his blanket and tuck yourself underneath, next to him.

 

He rolls over and tucks his head against your chest, trying to control his crying but not doing very well.  You’re not sure where to put your hands, because the last time you held him he was seventeen and all soft baby-flesh and peach fuzz, but now he’s made of sinewy muscle, hard where he used to be soft, rough where he used to be smooth.  “Shhh,” you say, because it’s the only thing to say, and suddenly his lips are on yours, and you can taste his tears in his mouth as you kiss back.  Your hands miraculously know where to go, as one arm curves around his waist and the other pushes up into his curls, and you know exactly what you’re supposed to do as he moves against you.

 

You start to follow him when he rolls off of you, but he presses a hand against your chest and says, “JC.  You need to go.”

 

And hearing him say your name like that makes you start shaking, and you slide off the bunk and stumble, confused, across the tiny isle to your own bunk.  You won’t sleep tonight, and you figure he won’t, either.

 

Sometimes, when the two of you are alone on the couch and you’re writing and he’s eating applejacks right out of the box, you’ll accidentally brush up against him, he’ll say, “Josh”, and curl against you and you’ll fall asleep like that.  He’s usually not there when you wake up.

 

And sometimes, in the middle of the night, you’ll still wake up and hear him crying, quietly, maybe mourning the lost innocence of two boys tainted by bitter reality.

 

He still calls you Josh sometimes.

 

 

 

 

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